EAST LANSING - Michigan State coaches had nothing but praise for Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, and for good reason. Sometimes it seemed like they had nothing to stop him.
Michigan State came into the game ranked the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten in pretty much all categories.
But Martinez, Nebraska's all-time leader in total offense, had one of the best games of his career in one of his biggest wins as a Husker, as Nebraska took a major step toward a Rose Bowl bid with a 28-24 victory over the Spartans.
Martinez netted 205 yards rushing. One hundred and sixty-five of those yards came on three plays, including TD runs of 71 and 35 yards, and a 59-yarder to the MSU 4-yard line which set up a first quarter Husker TD.
"He basically beat us single-handedly," MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of Martinez. "He's a great player. He's fast. He made plays today.
Martinez came into the game leading the Big Ten in pass efficiency. He had just five interceptions on the year, but MSU intercepted him three times.
He won in the end with his arm, but it was Martinez's feet which kept Nebraska in the game, despite falling behind 24-14 in the fourth quarter.
This coming after four straight seasons of keeping Michigan's sprinter-fast QB Denard Robinson pretty much bottled up.
Martinez and Nebraska's offensive output proved to be harder to stop than Robinson and Michigan.
"He's faster than Denard," Narduzzi said, when asked to compare Martinez to Robinson and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. "Even though he (Robinson) thinks he's as fast as Bolt or whoever. He (Martinez) is flat out faster. He's a good football player. He's good. I mean he's not as big a tailback as Braxton Miller, but he's fast."
What Went Wrong On The Long Ones?
Two of Martinez's long runs were off of read option plays.
The first was an inverted veer.
The second was a zone read with an H-back wham.
On both plays, Nebraska leaves the play-side defensive end unblocked, and Martinez makes decisions whether to keep the ball or hand to the tailback, depending on how the defensive end plays it.
The inverted veer was also a favorite play for Michigan. MSU bottled up Michigan's inverted veer consistently.
Michigan ran the inverted veer more than 12 times against MSU, and only one time toward William Gholston.
Martinez's 59-yarder and 71-yarder - both of which came in the first half - were run to Gholston's side.
MSU coaches and players said Nebraska's inverted veer is harder to stop than Michigan's partly because Nebraska threatens other complementary plays out of the same look, therefore keeping defenders honest longer.
"On the second one (the 71-yarder), the (receiver) went up and cracked the safety," Narduzzi said. "They have run a lot of crack-and-go routes on tape."
A crack-and-go is when a receiver acts as if he is going to crack-block inward on a safety, and then releases upfield for a deep pass.
"Our corner pressed the (outside) receiver all the way into the safety," Narduzzi said.
The corner was protecting against a crack-and-go release downfield when in actuality the QB run became the real threat on the play. Thus an example of different looks and threats complementing one another within the framework of the offense.
"The safety got tied up (with the corner and the WR he was trying to block)," Narduzzi said. "We expected our safety to be down (in the box) but we didn't have (him) as the extra guy in the box. The wide receiver ended up taking two (out) on that one and Martinez was off to the races."
On the first one, the 59-yarder which keyed a Nebraska drive which tied the game at 7-7, Gholston attacked the running back aggressively. Two weeks earlier, MSU instructed play-side DE Marcus Rush to hang back, string out the read and give play-side linebacker Taiwan Jones time to come off his slot receiver duties and fill the B-gap next to Rush.
Gholston didn't string it out. He dove straight at the running back. Martinez pulled the ball from the RB's gut, and kept it. Gholston's aggression took himself out of the play.
From there, MSU's inside linebackers just happened to be crashing the line of scrimmage on a blitz call. This sucked them in too far and left them unable to pursue Martinez in the alley.
On the second long run, the 71-yard TD, Nebraska ran zone blocking away from Gholston.
Gholston was more patient this time. He paused and tried to string out the play.
Nebraska brought the H-back from the opposite side at Gholston for a "wham" block. Gholston instinctively stepped toward the wham. This sucked Gholston inward. At that instant, Martinez bounced outward, and he was gone again.
Film Favored Nebraska
Nebraska coaches had seen how MSU defended these type of plays in the Michigan game. On one hand, MSU felt well-rehearsed in this brand of football. On the other, Nebraska was able to anticipate MSU's scheme and craft some wrinkles to counter it.
"We had a couple of things we put in for this game that we got a lot of mileage out of," said Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
The wham action opposite of zone flow is thought to have been one of the wrinkles.
MSU's inside linebackers flowed in the direction of the zone blocking.
Martinez pulled the ball out and made his read to the other side. The linebackers were sucked to the backside by a step or two, just enough to give Martinez a head start in getting out and down the sideline.
From there, the WR blocking that Narduzzi mentioned allowed the play to go the distance.
"It's an option read, with assignments," MSU defensive line coach Ted Gill told the Spartan Sports Network at halftime. "A couple of guys got blocked off their feet and didn't complete (their assignments) on those particular plays."
What Did MSU Do About It?
MSU noticed that Nebraska preferred to run the inverted veer or zone read to Gholston's side when Gholston was also on the weak side.
Gholston always plays on the short side of the field. Nebraska could formation to make sure the short side was also the weak side.
When Gholston was on the weak side, he played next to a one-technique nose tackle rather than a three-technique defensive tackle. That's just how MSU lines up in its "over" defense.
A one-technique lines up on the outside shoulder of the Nebraska center.
Nebraska found it easier to seal that one-tech nose than a three-technique. It just created more room.
The one-technique (nose tackle) customarily hosts the weak A-gap. MSU adjusted by surprising Nebraska early in the second half by slanting the one technique (Anthony Rashad White) from the A-gap out to the C-gap.
Nebraska ran the zone read wham on its first play of the third quarter.
When Martinez saw White joining Gholston as an unblocked player in the C-gap, Martinez decided to hand off. The play was stopped for a short gain.
On the next play, Martinez ran an inverted veer. This time, Gholston strung it out wider and higher, avoiding the track of a pulling guard. He dove less aggressively into the QB/RB mesh handoff action.
Gholston played it wider and influenced Martinez to keep it to the inside toward Gholston's help, rather than allowing Martinez to bounce it outside, as Martinez had done on the long ones.
This time, Gholston's LB help was choreographed to be inside when he funneled it back to them. That play was stopped for a short gain as well.
Nebraska went three-and-out on this drive, and MSU's second half adjustment worked momentarily.
On its next possession, Nebraska adjusted to the adjustment by running a sweep to the outside, away from MSU's d-line slant. Kurtis Drummond stayed home and contained what looked like a scary play for just four yards. MSU forced another three-and-out
Eventually MSU would have to stop with White's aggressive slants to the outside.
"There were a couple of calls that we made where I'd go outside (on that play)," White said. "At the same time, when I go outside, I have to be able to come right back in and try to be able to make a play."
Over-aggression to the play side of the veer made MSU susceptible elsewhere.
"It wasn't supposed to be for every down," White said. "Sometimes you win against the other team's play calling, and sometimes you don't. That's why it's football.
"But the times I did do it (slant outside), it did work. We called it at the right times."
Biting One More Time
MSU bottled up the inverted veer and zone read in the third quarter. Nebraska had some success with it in the fourth quarter, but didn't break the big one with it the remainder of the game.
Nebraska has as much success with the strong-side toss sweep out of the I-formation as it does with its shot gun option plays. The Huskers are truly a dazzling mix of downhill conventional power and spread option. Add pass game balance and it's clear to see why Nebraska has the top-rated offense in the Big Ten.
Martinez's third long run, a 39-yard TD which cut the lead to 24-21 in the fourth quarter, came out of a toss sweep look. Martinez faked the toss sweep, and kept the ball on a naked bootleg to the outside.
Gholston was supposed to have containment on the bootleg side, but he crashed in too hard on the toss fake, played without discipline and let the play get out around his side.
"They faked the toss and get out there on the naked," Dantonio said. "The quarterback takes off with it. We're collapsing, we've got nobody there. The safety missed the tackle, and he (Martinez) made the play. He made three of them like that. He made three long runs and he threw the ball pretty effectively as well.
"I credit him, credit Nebraska and what they were able to do but I think we had every opportunity to win that football game, as we did so in the other games this year. We're playing good people, we're playing good opponents, and we're playing well-coached football teams so it is tough."
Nebraska rushed for 313 yards. It was the most by a Spartan opponent since Glen Mason's Minnesota team utilized conventional inside and outside zone runs for 327 yards against John L. Smith's Spartans i n2005.
Fourth Down Decision
For the third time in four games, Dantonio encountered a difficult fourth-and-short decision and elected to kick. MSU has lost all three games, leading Dantonio to acknowledge the pivotal nature of those decisions.
Against Iowa, MSU led 10-3 when the Spartans punted on fourth-and-one at the Hawkeye 48-yard line with 5:34 left in the third quarter. That decision allowed Iowa to hang in the game a bit longer when an MSU scoring drive might have delivered a knockout blow. Iowa took possession and drove for a field goal, cutting the lead to 10-6 early in the fourth quarter and altering the game from that point forward.
Earlier in the game, Dantonio opted for a field goal and a 10-0 lead in the first quarter rather than going for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
One week later, at Michigan, Dantonio opted to kick on a pair of fourth-and-short situations. On fourth-and-one, MSU missed a field goal that could have tied the game at 3-3 with 5:03 left in the first half.
With 5:48 left in the Michigan game, Dantonio opted for a field goal and a 10-9 lead rather than go for a 14-9 lead on fourth and a yard and a half.
Dantonio said he considered going for the TD in that situation, but the spot resulted in too long of a yard to pick up. If MSU had scored a TD, Michigan would have needed a TD to win, rather than the game-winning field goal which they eventually kicked.
Of course if MSU had failed on fourth-and-goal, people would have second-guessed the decision to opt out of the sure field goal and the lead.
Dantonio felt good about playing the odds and playing to his defense in each situation. But in each situation, the defense failed to hold.
Against Nebraska, MSU led 24-21 with 1:27 remaining when the Spartans faced fourth-and-two at the Husker 39-yard line. MSU's attempt to bleed the clock on the ground produced one first down on a counter toss, but not quite enough yardage three plays later on a third-and-six shot gun draw.
Dantonio opted again to lean on his defense and punt. But MSU punted out of the end zone for a touchback and a mere 19-yard net.
Risking 19 yards against 2 yards and the opportunity to gain sure victory? Dantonio clearly second guessed that decision afterward.
"We could have made better calls out there, I could have went for it on fourth-and-2, which I thought about doing at the end of the game," Dantonio said. "I just felt with no timeouts, we'd punt it down there, a minute and 20 on the clock; you've got to play it on the odds. But the ball is right back up to the 40 right after we did that with one pass play."
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